Kitty Keller may have changed the way you eat
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler
“Snob foods,” Kitty Keller says facetiously as she pulls jars of specialty food product out of her purse.
Well known among friends and associates for her disarmingly frank and down-home earthy manner, the Oakland-based founder of KL Keller Foodways is also a running source of hilarious stories, folksy asides, sharp witticisms, and useful information on the foods she has been importing for over 25 years.
Oh … and for the sake of this story, let’s all decide it’s fine to be snobs (or not snobs) and just think back to childhood for a minute.
If you’re under 30 and have epicurean parents, you may have been weaned on the types of ingredients in Keller’s jars. However, those of a certain age remember when American cupboards held little more than McCormick Chili Powder, Morton’s “When it rains, it pours” salt, and Heinz apple cider vinegar in those particular categories.
It’s safe to say we have all been changed as food awareness has exploded internationally, and every exotic ingredient is just a click away. We’re more sophisticated, foodwise, and even the penny pinchers among us might pay the extra 12 bucks for that 12-ounce bottle of KL Keller Banyuls Vinegar when we learn what it does to our salad. If you know your wines, just think of a fine grenache noir–grenache gris–carignan blend with six years in oak casks, which just happens to have been turned into vinegar. Or if it’s easier, imagine the house vinaigrette at Chez Panisse. Given the vast diaspora of Chez Panisse alumni chefs (some turned cookbook authors), there’s plenty of appreciation for KL Keller products hovering in our gastronomic ecosphere.
For more than a quarter century, Keller has scoured small nooks and crannies in France, Spain, and the United Kingdom to discover small artisan crafters with exceptional products and the ability to provide them in a reliable stream. Her ability to appreciate the work on the ground was first planted by her crafts-savvy mother and heightened in the 1970s, when Granny came from Kentucky to live with the 20-something Kitty and her mother on their one-acre property in Danville, California.
“Granny was a product of the Depression, so she put in a for-kitchen garden and a for-cash garden. So, in the old days, it wasn’t unusual for us to walk in the kitchen and there would be $4.26 on the table ‘cause somebody stopped by and took some cucumbers and some corn and tomatoes, and that was Granny’s pocket money. Granny also let beans dry on the bush. She called them shelly beans, and in the winter she’d cook them for days with quite a bit of bacon, and that way we had something nutritious. It was that perspective that helped me jump into dealing with artisanal people. … I was kind of always steeped in the handmade and the value of labor … and the sincerity of it.”
Of course, it took 20 or 30 trips to Europe to find these artisanal people, and the formative trip was in 1967, when Miss Kitty (as she calls herself) went off to Deutschland on a high school class trip. There she was seduced by the German sweets and especially the schlag (whipped cream) made from milk that had not been fractionated. It was that kind of deeper curiosity about what makes a food taste great—or different—that lit the spark. Actually, it was probably lit well before high school, since it was a younger Miss Kitty who first noted differences in milk through the seasons. “I remember [how] milk would change its flavor when the green grass came in in the spring,” she says.
When asked if she might be what they call a supertaster, the dismissal is swift: “I mean, like, oh boy, is this too homey, but my daddy used to say there were a lot more backends of horses out there than there were horses’ heads to go along with them, and that’s probably the case for people who feature themselves as supertasters. You know, you just taste and try and be mindful about what you’re tasting and try to be informed.”
But still, let’s entertain the possibility that Keller might have the same tastebud-to-brain linkages—or shall we call them interests—you find in … say …Thomas Keller (no relation) of the French Laundry, who has been known to call up the importer just to see what she has sitting in a bin that could assist in a particular project he’s exploring in the kitchen.
On the Front of the Surfboard, Going Fast
Kitty Keller’s first trip to France came a few years after high school. She went with a friend, whom she credits with teaching her “how to behave.” They carried Patricia Wells’s The Food Lover’s Guide to France to figure out what to do each day for both food and entertainment. For Keller, that meant visiting tiny, grassroots food producers to see what they were making. When a small walnut oil maker let them taste fresh oil right out of the tap, Keller discovered her palate’s familiarity with rancid oil, and this was not it. She needed this oil (or one like it) back home, so her first product in the KL Keller line would be a French walnut oil.
Keller no longer learns of producers by following published sources like Patricia Wells. “If people are telling me about it, or I’m reading about it in Bon Appétit, it’s way too late. I am supposed to be on the front of the surfboard, going fast.”
As her forager sidekick Linda Sikorski explains, Keller is driven by what she wants to eat or cook, so on quite a few product pages at klkellerfoodways.com, you’ll find “The Power of Ten,” a guide to ten ways to use the product. Sikorski says ten is a random number, since Keller can spin out at least that many ideas on how to use an item off the top of her head. A quick example Keller rattles off is to simply drizzle her company’s Yandilla Mustard Seed Oil (from Australia) on sashimi instead of using wasabi.
Keller was at the front of the surfboard on fleur de sel and sel gris in 1996, when she rolled out her M. Gilles Hervy salt products. Stumbling into France’s back-to-the-land hippie entrepreneur circuit, she had found Gilles Hervy, whom she respectfully addressed as “monsieur,” giving him the “M.” he had never used in his life. Like the other hippies who had started raking up the flower of salt and underlying grey salt in le pays Guérandais in the 1970s, Hervy was meeting a growing demand in France. But as Keller was hauling back some of his 40-pound sacks, she couldn’t help wondering who in America was going to buy $35-per-pound salt, and she figured she would have to pack it herself in her kitchen to keep the cost down. She took a bag over to the Chez Panisse kitchen, where the chefs knew what it was and were quite happy to affirm its superior quality. Then the Angel Serendipity, who Keller says “has watched my company throughout the years,” arrived in the nick of time as the New York Times featured fleur de sel on a food-section front page, and suddenly Keller was packing salt in her kitchen just to keep up with demand.
It was in the early 2000s that Keller first met pepper grower Vincent Darritchon in the Basque region of France and brought home kilos of his Piment d’Espelette. “I thought it was such a good idea,” she says. Unfortunately, this fruity-sweet ground red pepper was not yet on the culinary radar in the U.S. “I couldn’t give it away,” she says. Plus, Darritchon had it packaged in 40-gram jars because Europeans liked the lower cost per ounce. “Americans weren’t going to buy a 40-gram jar because they can’t use it all—you know we’re still Puritans, and we don’t want to be wasteful. So I prevailed on the guy, and he just put it in a little 15-gram jar, and we quickly picked up the majority of the retail business in the espelette jars in the U.S.”
Keller’s line of specialty vinegars is currently composed of nine bottles from Spain and two from France. Each bottle rivals the others for its unique and exceptional flavor experience. All came into her hands as she was bopping about, poking into famous wineries to check out any great wines gone bad that were being bottled for sale as vinegar. It was hard to find winemakers who could honestly appreciate her enthusiasm for the products, even as they were happy enough to offload the bottles into the esteemed KL Keller line. Touring in Andalucía, she found that Alvear, maker of several award-winning dry and sweet wines of Montilla, had a Pedro Ximénez (PDX) vinegar brewing in a cave with a dirt floor, which hosts a special yeast that gives the vinegar a unique flavor. There she spoke with a tall and very handsome oenologist, who dispassionately said, “Madame, you don’t understand. I consider vinegar a failure.”
Packing Away the Surfboard
There are stories like these for every product that came out of Kitty Keller’s decades of glorious misadventures, and under each success lies a reliable income stream for a small producer. “A whole bunch of people have placed their trust in me to earn a living by selling their products or by letting us import their products,” says Keller.
But time passes, and as Keller admits, “We already know I’m well versed in health catastrophes.” In her frank manner, she says how difficult it would be to have to explain how to care for those accounts while dead, which is why she decided to retire this summer while she’s still standing up. She found that a similar Oakland-based import company, Manicaretti, distributor of the Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta recognized in many local stores by its distinctive brown paper packaging, would be the perfect fit, and while her products will be re-merchandised as Manicaretti’s going forward, that is not Keller’s concern. Beyond getting to eat and enjoy the oils, vinegars, spices, preserves, confections, and seafoods while she still can, she’s thinking of the farmer who grows, dries, and packs the espelette pepper, the winemaker who tends the vinegar barrel, and the old hippie who now employs a new bunch of dreamers to rake up the fleur de sel along the shores of France.
If you have never tasted Abbe Rous Vinegar of Banyuls (and even if you have), the recipe below offers a splendid way to understand its magic. Chez Panisse alum Kelsie Kerr, chef/owner of Standard Fare in Berkeley created it especially for you (and for Kitty).
Ricotta Baked in a Fig Leaf
with Lentil Salad and Summer Squash Salsa
By Chef Kelsie Kerr, Standard Fare, Berkeley | Photo by Judy Doherty
It truly is the little touches that make the difference at the table. While good vinegar (like top-quality extra-virgin olive oil) may not be at the top of your list of special ingredients, both make all the difference in a salad or a sauce.
Kitty Keller imports some of my go-to vinegars. She has always chosen traditional ingredients made by talented artisan producers, the kind of ingredients that inspire fantasies of foreign trips with glimpses into makers’ cellars. My favorite among her vinegars is a Banyuls, which is made from a sweet, fortified wine from the Languedoc region of France. This Banyuls was a revelation when I first tasted it, and I have never tasted one as good since. It has great pungency with deliciously rich, nutty overtones and an interesting fruity and mineral complexity. I especially like using it in dressings for salads and to deglaze a pan for summer braises. Don’t stop with Banyuls in your discovery of Kitty’s vinegars. Her PDX Sherry vinegar is like no other I have tasted: deep, rich, and smooth.
When selecting ricotta, I look to Bellwether Farms, a local dairy in Sonoma that makes delicious ricotta from sheep or Jersey milk whey. Most local stores carry it in the cheese department.
Fig leaves produce an exotic aroma when baked, and they are perfect for wrapping around fresh cheese and fish. In fact, fresh local petrale sole, rockfish, or salmon (when in season) would work just as well as the ricotta in this recipe. While it’s unlikely that you’ll find figs leaves at the market, the East Bay is filled with fig trees. I see them growing everywhere I go, and if you don’t have a tree, it’s likely that your neighbor may have one. Just ask if you can take a few leaves.
Small green or black lentils work best for the salad, as they will hold their shape and will not turn mushy while cooking.
Serves 4 to 6
- 12 ounces ricotta
- Salt to taste
- Extra-virgin olive oil (various uses)
- 4-6 large fig leaves
- Lentil Salad (see recipe below)
- Summer Squash Salsa (see recipe below)
In a small bowl, mix the ricotta with salt to taste and 2 teaspoons olive oil. Wash and dry each fig leaf and brush with olive oil. Spoon an equal portion of the ricotta into each leaf, and fold the leaves around the ricotta, poking the stems through the leaves to help keep them folded over. Place the stuffed leaves on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and store in the refrigerator until ready to bake (since these are best served still warm from the oven). Pull the tray of leaves and cheese from the refrigerator 15 minutes before baking as you preheat the oven to 400°F. Bake until puffed and golden, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven.
Spoon the lentil salad onto 4 to 6 plates. Slide a fig leaf onto each plate overlapping the salad. Spoon the summer squash salsa over the cheese and salad. Garnish with more chopped herbs and a drizzle of olive oil if desired. The fig leaf is edible but really too fibrous to be eaten.
Makes about 3 cups
- 1 cup lentils, small green or black
- 1 tablespoon Banyuls vinegar
- Salt and fresh-ground pepper
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons slivered scallions, white and green parts
- 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
Bring 6 cups of salted water to a boil. Add the lentils and cook for 12 minutes. Turn off the heat and cover with a lid. Let sit 12 minutes. Check a lentil or two. They should be fully cooked, but still have body. If they are still not quite done, let sit a few minutes longer. Drain the lentils reserving ½ cup cooking liquid. Sprinkle the vinegar over the warm lentils and season with salt and pepper. Let sit for 5 minutes. Taste and experiment with adding small amounts of salt and vinegar to check if lentils are improved by adding more of either. Stir in the extra-virgin olive oil, scallions, and parsley. If the lentils seem very tight and stodgy, loosen them with a bit of the reserved cooking liquid.
Summer Squash Salsa
- A mix of squash in various colors will look nice. For the fresh herbs, try basil, summer savory, parsley, chives, or a mix of several.
- Makes about 1 cup
- 2 small, firm summer squash
- ⅓ cup chopped fresh herbs
- Salt and fresh-ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon Banyuls vinegar
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Remove the two ends of each squash and slice very thin. (A mandoline makes this job easier.) Cut the slices into thin strips to make batons or julienne. Sprinkle the squash with salt to taste and let it sit on a dinner plate to soften. Chop the herbs. Mix the vinegar, oil, and pepper together. Stir in the chopped herbs. The salted squash may have shed liquid onto the dinner plate, and you can stir that liquid into the herb oil. Taste for salt and acid and adjust as needed.